Benedict XVI, first pope to step down in 600 years, dies at 95

His dramatic decision paved the way for the conclave which elected Francis as his successor. The two popes then lived side by side in the Vatican gardens, an unprecedented arrangement that set the stage for future “popes emeritus” to do the same.

A statement from Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Saturday morning: “With sadness, I inform you that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI died today at 9:34 a.m. at the Mater Ecclesia monastery in the Vatican. Further information will be released. as soon as possible. “

The Vatican said Benedict XVI’s remains would be on public display in St. Peter’s Basilica from Monday for worshipers to pay their last respects. Benedict XVI’s request was that his funeral be celebrated solemnly but with “simplicity”, Bruni told reporters.

He added that Benedict, whose health had deteriorated over Christmas, received the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick on Wednesday, after his daily Mass, in the presence of his longtime secretary and consecrated women who care for his home.

Former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger never wanted to be pope, planning at 78 to spend his final years writing in the “peace and quiet” of his native Bavaria.

Instead, he was forced to follow in the footsteps of beloved St. John Paul II and lead the church through the fallout of the clerical sex abuse scandal, and then a second scandal that erupted when his own butler stole his personal papers and gave them to a reporter.

Being elected pope, he once said, felt like a “guillotine” had fallen upon him.

Nonetheless, he set to work with a unique vision to revive faith in a world that, he frequently lamented, seemed to think it could do without God.

“In vast areas of the world today there is a strange forgetfulness of God,” he told 1 million young people gathered in a vast area for his first trip abroad as pope. at World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany in 2005. Seems like everything would be the same even without him.

Through decisive, often controversial gestures, he tried to remind Europe of its Christian heritage. And he set the Catholic Church on a conservative, traditional path that has often alienated progressives. He eased restrictions on celebrating the Old Mass in Latin and launched a crackdown on American nuns, insisting that the church remain true to its doctrine and traditions in the face of a changing world. It was a path that in many ways was reversed by his successor, Francis, whose priorities of mercy over morality alienated the traditionalists who had been so spoiled by Benedict.

Benoît’s style could not be more different from that of Jean-Paul or François. Not a globe-trotting media darling or a populist, Benedict was a teacher, theologian and academic at heart: calm and pensive with a fierce wit. He spoke in paragraphs, not in sound bites. He had a soft spot for the orange Fanta as well as his beloved library; when he was elected pope, he had his entire study moved – as it was – from his apartment just outside the Vatican walls into the Apostolic Palace. The books followed him to his retirement home.

“In them are all my advisers,” he said of his books in the 2010 “Light of the World” interview. “I know every nook and cranny, and everything has its story.”

It was Benedict’s devotion to history and tradition that endeared him to members of the traditionalist wing of the Catholic Church. For them, Benedict remained even in retirement a beacon of nostalgia for the Orthodoxy and Latin Mass of their youth – and the pope they much preferred to Francis.

In time, this group of arch-conservatives, whose complaints were amplified by sympathetic American conservative Catholic media, would become a key source of opposition to Francis who responded to what he called divisive threats in reimposing restrictions on Old Latin. Mass that Benoît had relaxed.

Like his predecessor John Paul, Benedict XVI made communication with Jews a hallmark of his papacy. His first official act as pope was a letter to the Jewish community in Rome, and he became the second pope in history, after John Paul, to enter a synagogue.

In his 2011 book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Benedict made a sweeping exculpation of the Jewish people for the death of Christ, explaining biblically and theologically why there was no basis in Scripture for the argument that the people Jew as a whole was responsible for Jesus’ death.

“It’s very clear that Benedict is a true friend of the Jewish people,” said Rabbi David Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee’s office of interfaith relations, at the time of Benedict’s retirement.

Yet Benedict XVI also offended some Jews who were furious at his consistent defense and promotion to sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the World War II pope accused by some of not speaking out enough about the Holocaust. And they harshly criticized Benedict when he withdrew the excommunication of a traditionalist British bishop who had denied the Holocaust.

Benedict’s relations with the Muslim world were also mixed. He angered Muslims with a speech in September 2006 – five years after the 9/11 attacks in the United States – in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who called some of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings “evil and inhuman”, especially his command. spread the faith “by the sword”.

A later comment after the massacre of Christians in Egypt led the Al Azhar center in Cairo, the seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship, to suspend ties with the Vatican, which were only restored under Francis.

The Vatican under Benedict suffered from notorious public relations gaffes, and sometimes Benedict himself was to blame. He angered the United Nations and several European governments in 2009 when, en route to Africa, he told reporters that the AIDS problem could not be solved by distributing condoms.

“On the contrary, it increases the problem,” said Benedict XVI. A year later, he published a review saying that if a male prostitute used a condom to avoid transmitting HIV to his partner, he could take a first step towards more responsible sex.

But Benedict’s legacy was irreversibly colored by the 2010 global eruption of the sex abuse scandal, even though as cardinal he was responsible for unseating the Vatican on the issue.

Documents have revealed that the Vatican knew the problem very well, but turned a blind eye for decades, sometimes pushing back against bishops who tried to do the right thing.

Benedict had first-hand knowledge of the magnitude of the problem, since his former office — the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he had headed since 1982 — was tasked with handling abuse cases.

In fact, it was he who, before becoming pope, made the then groundbreaking decision in 2001 to take responsibility for handling these cases after realizing that bishops around the world were not punishing abusers but simply moving them. from parish to parish where they could rape again.

And once he became pope, Benedict XVI essentially overthrew his beloved predecessor, John Paul, by taking action against the most notorious pedophile priest of the 20th century, the Reverend Marcial Maciel. Benedict took over Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order held up as a model of orthodoxy by Jean-Paul, after it was revealed that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered at least three children.

In retirement, Benedict was blamed by an independent report for his stewardship of four priests while Bishop of Munich; he denied any personal wrongdoing but apologized for any “gross misconduct”.

As soon as the abuse scandal subsided for Benedict, another erupted.

In October 2012, Benedict XVI’s former butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted of aggravated robbery after Vatican police found a huge stash of papal documents in his apartment. Gabriele told Vatican investigators he gave the documents to Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi because he believed the pope was unaware of the “evil and corruption” in the Vatican and that exposing it publicly would put the Church on the Right Track.

With the “Vatileaks” scandal resolved, including with a papal pardon from Gabriele, Benedict XVI felt free to make the extraordinary decision he had alluded to earlier: he announced he would resign rather than die. in office as all its predecessors had done for almost six centuries.

“After examining my conscience several times before God, I have come to the certainty that my strength due to advanced age is no longer suited” to the demands of being pope, he told the cardinals.

He made his last public appearances in February 2013, then boarded a helicopter to fly to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, to attend the conclave privately. Benedict then largely kept his word that he would live a life of prayer in retirement, only occasionally coming out of his converted monastery for special events and occasionally writing book prefaces and messages.

Usually they were harmless, but a 2020 book – in which Benedict defended the celibate priesthood at a time when Francis was considering an exception – sparked demands for future “popes emeritus” to keep quiet.

Despite his very different style and priorities, Francis has often said that having Benedict in the Vatican is like having a “wise grandfather” living at home.

Benedict was often misunderstood: Dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” by the unsympathetic media, he was actually a very sweet and fiercely intelligent scholar who devoted his life to serving the church he loved.

“Thank you for giving us the shining example of the simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard,” Benedict’s longtime deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, told him during one of his last public events as Pope.

Benedict inherited the seemingly impossible task of following in John Paul’s footsteps when he was elected the 265th head of the Church on April 19, 2005. He was the oldest elected pope in 275 years and the first German in nearly 1000 years.

Born April 16, 1927, in Marktl Am Inn, Bavaria, Benedict wrote in his memoir of being conscripted into the Nazi youth movement against his will in 1941, when he was 14 and membership was compulsory. He deserted the German army in April 1945, in the last days of the war.

Benedict was ordained, along with his brother Georg, in 1951. After spending several years teaching theology in Germany, he was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977 and elevated to the rank of cardinal three months later by Pope Paul VI.

His brother Georg was a frequent visitor to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo until his death in 2020. His sister died years before. His “papal family” consisted of Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, his longtime private secretary who was always at his side, another secretary and consecrated women who looked after the papal apartment.


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